March 8, 2012 Ego Trap
You are walking across a major street.
There is no traffic light at this intersection.
You are in a crosswalk, legally.
You have the right of way.
A blue Ford Focus approaches, one block away.
At its current trajectory, the car will intersect your path in 5 seconds.
Technically, the driver is obliged to slow down.
Is there a part of you that wants to get hit by this car just to prove a point?
We love so very much to be right.
I have this thought almost every single day. On the days that I walk home from work, I will access this (completely frightening) part of my brain no less than four times in a thirty minute period. I fully admit this subconscious anti-prayer is probably the craziest thing that I continue to think even after determining it to be insane, but I seem to be completely unable to shake this brand of analysis from my frontal lobe.
And I don’t think I am alone.
We often say that our egos are fragile, but I disagree. On the contrary, our egos are so sturdy that there is a part of each of us unwilling to sacrifice even a single bit of pride if it would mean kowtowing to a unknown person with whom we have had zero previous interactions. In this respect, our egos are quite a bit sturdier than conventional wisdom suggests.
Even in circumstances where we would obtain no benefit — fringe or otherwise — and in fact would suffer a huge detriment, we are obsessed with being right. Being right, above all else, is the best feeling in the world, and we know that because there is a part inside all of us that believes our being in a situation where we are right and they are wrong outweighs the complete and total bummer of getting clipped by a Ford Focus.
The hit-by-car example is extreme (because it involves our potential demise), but this kind of I-am-so-right-I-hope-someone-challenges-me internal monologue infects our lives in all kinds of (awful) ways.
When we are sitting on an insult — one we cannot wait to use! — praying that a permanent or temporary enemy verbally abuses us, our sturdy egos are showing.
When we hope we will spot a stranger steal a purse from an old lady so that we can track him down — because we are sure it’s the right thing to do! — we are confusing our own self-love with the far better scenario of living in a world without violent crime.
When we know the answer — er, “question” — to the Double Jeopardy “answer” and hope the Defending Champion will simply frown and shrug her shoulders, we are favoring our own internal righteousness over a stranger who has had — and will continue to have — no impact on our life. It is more than a little bit strange that we root against another human in a simple trivia contest thousands of miles away so that we can have a moment of ego-stroking — even if no one is around to see or hear about it!
In the animal kingdom, “ego” is understood in terms of natural instinct.
For example, when two rams are butting heads in the wild, though we are tempted to personify their actions in terms of “pride,” we recognize that they are engaging in behavior inherent to their existing in the first place. Rams accept these challenges in order to display dominance and prove their genetic worth to ewes (aka, “lady rams”).
Perhaps, even while walking in traffic, we are ultimately unable to shake these ram-like, animal instincts. We want to be challenged. We want to be able to show off our righteousness to passersby, even if our display results in a precarious situation. We still have these aggressive pride instincts bottled up and desire circumstances within the society we have created to act on them. Even if those circumstances involve a car and a crosswalk.
It is possible that humans have evolved slower than our social societies have.
That we generally lack serious conflict in our day-to-day lives speaks volumes of the society a sub-set of humans have been able to create, but puts us in the unique position of not being able to test our still-quite-functional animal instincts. Our egos have been cultivated over time in a way that suggests our high opinion of ourselves comes not only from our parents clapping as hard as they can during our performance of I’m A Little Teapot, but also from our parents DNA and all of the DNA proceeding.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I need to get out of the street.